The D.C. Music Scene as It Enters 2017
Last year, while Beyoncé was subverting white America and Frank Ocean was building a staircase and Mitski was staring coldly into your soul, musicians throughout our nation’s capital continued to create and innovate under the growing shadow of conservative politics and luxury condo development.
However, not unlike the national scene, music in the District is getting released faster than any one enthusiast can consume it. So, like a true professional, I’ve delegated the task of curating 2016’s best and prognosticating on the year to come to some of my favorite local music-thinkers (e.g. Peter Lillis of Babe City , Kate Ida and Julia Wejchert of femchord, Marcus Dowling of One Love Massive).
Keep up the good work DC, 2017 needs you…
Lindsay Hogan (Art Director, Random Nerds)
* For my closing thoughts on the DC music scene as it enters 2017, scroll down to the bottom (or magically jump there)
Fellow Creatures, “Beamships”
My folk-raised heart was so ready for the release of Fellow Creatures’ eponymous full length in April. Over the course of the 11-song album, Sam McCormally and Will McKindley-Ward tackle interwoven macro and micro issues, dropping riddles for the careful listener along the way.
After much consideration (and a nod to “Allies”#), it’s “Beamships” – an anecdote about a possible alien encounter that explores the emotionally-wrought reaction to the unknown – that ultimately makes the top of my list. Fully utilizing the duo’s gorgeous harmonies (along with some outstanding production), it manages to strip away any preconceived nerdiness regarding the subject matter and instead offers a fresh sense of realism to the wonder, doubt, and disorientation of the supernatural.
The truth is out there.
Puff Pieces, “Women and Men with Guns”
As political apprehension and fear hangs over DC’s future, Puff Pieces have unexpectedly become ‘anxious anthem makers’ — a title they’re likely not thrilled to have. I don’t think anyone anticipated exactly how relevant this (and the rest of Bland in DC) would be when it was released in April, but they nailed it and here we are.
In the upcoming years in DC, I could see Puff Pieces serving not only as a catharsis for our jittery political fears and modern paranoias, but as a mature cornerstone of tangible DC activism. The group already houses benefit shows for local charities, and weaves the politics of DC into their music with a realist wisdom and artful succinctness that this city’s artists often lack.
At year’s end I can’t honestly list my favorite music without including CrushnPain’s, All Mountains. The EP — and “Enjoined” in particular — is a meticulous and technical effort that showcases the group’s balance of layered, experimental electronics and accessible beauty.
You can take this pick as evidence of my favoritism# or my expertise (or both), but you can’t put this jam on a pair of headphones and tell me you’re not transported.
Marcus Dowling (Pitchfork, Bandcamp, One Love Massive)
My Personal Thoughts on 2016…
This was the year in DC music that wasn’t about music at all. Instead it was about closed venues, gentrification, Donald Trump, and the creeping spectre of sociopolitical change. In fact, the most applicable song to describe this city as it enters 2017 isn’t even a modern song, or from a DC band for that matter.
It’s KISS’ 1982 Creatures of the Night album rock anthem, “War Machine”:
No, there’s no thinly veiled liberal politics happening here. Actually, this is all about a professional wrestler named Taz — a short, stout, and dangerous “Human Suplex Machine” and submission specialist who, for a time, was a stalwart member of ‘90s-era American renegade wrestling promotion Extreme Championship Wrestling. Walking to the ring with “War Machine” blaring behind him, Taz vowed to his opponents one thing: “Beat me if you can, SURVIVE IF I LET YOU.”
In 2016, DC experienced the equivalent of a T-Bone Tazplex#, only to then be choked out by Taz’s Tazmission#. Here’s how the city can recover from such a hellacious beating, but in the meantime let’s celebrate the ones that persevered through.
Aaron Abernathy, “I Need to Know”
The tightest band in the city isn’t Rare Essence, Paperhaus, or any other group of musicians you as a DC resident paid attention to in 2016. I know this because I’m quite certain that a solid 95% of the public reading this didn’t see Aaron Abernathy and Nat Turner play outstanding gigs all over the city in 2016 — namely at Rock and Roll Hotel, Tropicalia, Funk Parade, and the Ivy City Smokehouse. But that’s cool, though. Nat Turner traveled the globe with leading indie rapper Black Milk, and Ab’s sterling Andre Benjamin-by-way-of-Prince Rogers Nelson debut album was reviewed by yours truly at Pitchfork, by fellow DC-based writer Michell Clark at Bandcamp, and also saw significant support by OkayPlayer, too. Ab’s currently playing in Europe, and has signed this album for Japanese re-release.
Given that PEOPLE STILL BUY MUSIC IN MASSIVE QUANTITIES IN JAPAN, I think he’ll be just fine with (or without) our widespread local support, but in short, y’all all missed out and you should all be ashamed of yourselves.
aquatic.gardener, “side [a]”
Multi-talented ratchet jazz Super Saiyan shaman Jamal Gray was born in far Northeast DC’s Kenilworth neighborhood, thus he oftentimes uses the alias of aquatic.gardener (the name of a tidal marsh located in, of all places, Kenilworth Park).
For what became his critically-lauded 55-minute collection of music, Gray took WMATA’s 80 bus line from NE DC’s Fort Totten to NW DC’s Kennedy Center and recorded what feels like all of the conversations that gentrification in the Nation’s Capital could soon wash away. Then he through those discussions over, through, around, and beside tightly wound yet smooth ambient jazz, creating a soothing, striking juxtaposition.
After a year in which Gray’s jazz ensemble and dance collaborative efforts teased us with live and recorded gems, this official release to close out 2016 was a pleasant surprise that gives a sense there’s ideally much more to come.
Black Lodge and em.g, “SIlencio”
Maybe the most profound thing to emerge so far from DC as the city itself emerges from its post-election malaise is the work of Alex “Black Lodge” Tebeleff and Maggie “em.g” Gilmore. “Silencio” just feels right.
Tebeleff is the de facto leader of a band and a venue that once shared the same name (in 2016, Tebeleff made as many headlines for music as he did for his one-time venue being turned into a “palace of gentrification). Gilmore is key in the operation of the DC Public Library’s vital Punk Archive, as well as running the most amazing seeming of punk venues ever in the basement of DCPL’s Martin Luther King Library, a stone’s throw from the old 9:30 Club. All of that equals SO MUCH NOISE, though it’s here — where Tebeleff gets far from the maddening crowd and introspective with a modular synth, and Gilmore discovers the abilities of her own voice as a technological superweapon – that things get truly awesome.
Two tracks and 34 minutes in length, “Silencio” is the perfect breathe-and-stop moment for a year when DC felt both strange and weird in equal measure.
Peter Lillis (Babe City Records, Songbyrd Music House, Den-Mate)
BUST OFF, “Burn Bethesda”
Many are pontificating that in the wake of Tr*mp’s election punk will have a comeback, which in my honest opinion is a copout, as we shouldn’t be reducing major threats to civil liberties to one’s choice of aesthetic media interests. THAT SAID, if national interest in punk music does rise alongside the Trump agenda, I hope people find Montgomery County’s BUST OFF.
Their Ataculation release is scorching, climaxing with “Burn Bethesda” — a track seething with adolescent angst, almost comically so, but enough to get me to at least consider picking up a lighter and a can of gas on my way up the red line.
Sometimes Jake Lazovick sits and thinks, and sometimes he just sits. “Crumb” — the opening track on Sitcom’s 2016 release Gig Bag, now available on DZ Tapes — is an engrossing, aural still life: “I walk around blindfolded and hungry / reaching out my arms for a box of saltines / and i imagine a crumb falls to the floor / I imagine myself as a crumb on the floor.”
The descriptive yet vague imagery of a couch and a floor, of a wall and a door, are benign enough on the surface; though in Lazovick’s deft, concept-heavy hands these terms set the stage for an engrossing battle between self-actualization and self-doubt. In the end, the narrator is his own enemy, wishing to rise but crippled by his own self-consciousness: “I could imagine myself getting up / but I already imagined myself as a crumb.” That’s some heady shit.
- April + VISTA – “Daggers”#
- brushes – “Heads Are Weak”#
- Cawl Sted – “Eazy”#
- Flash Frequency – “Non Fiction II”#
- Mike of Doom – “Be Yoself”#
- Red Death – “Empty Shell”#
- Sir E.U. – “in my hAnd”#
- Snail Mail – “Thinning”#
Kate Ida (co-host, femchord)
Prinze George, “Wait Up”
Do we ever make friendships as strong as those we do growing up? The earnest longing and uncertainty on Maryland-based trio Prinze George’s “Wait Up” left me wondering.
Naomi Almquist’s drowsy lilt balances out the glossy pop, letting the feelings of coming-of-age hang heavy as this track achieves an enamoring balance of warm nostalgia and existential questioning.
Julia Wejchert (co-host, femchord)
April + Vista, “Beasts”
April + Vista have been getting a lot of love lately, for good reason. “Beasts” from their Note to Self EP especially stands out, with April George’s vocals vacillating between smoothness and grit over a lush, layered soundscape. You haven’t truly heard this song until you heard live, though. The power of George’s voice, and the feeling that floats among the crowd, just can’t be fully captured in a recorded track.
On “Mean,” Neffy captures the complex mix of feeling like a fool after a failed relationship and the welcomed need to be rid of someone you care too much about but who you know isn’t good for you. Her rich voice and poignant lyrics will hit you right in the gut, though there’s a certain hopefulness as well, with the classic soul imagery – “I go to the river to wash my hands of you” – complimenting the overarching theme of renewal on her I Don’t Miss You EP.
James Scott (Otherfeels)
April + Vista, “Daggers”
“Oh leave me be, oh leave me be why don’t you.” This song has depth in every sense of the word. Wielding an exceptionally intelligent beat and extremely relevant lyrics, this track injects a full syringe of April’s soul into Matt’s Radiohead/Aphex Twin-inspired production. It gives you a lot to chew, but leaves you wanting more.
Troy Everett, “Glass”
One guy, creating a song out of thin air. Layered percussion, guitar, and beautiful vocals make up this hypnotic track that’s equal parts light and dark. His sonic heroes can be assumed, though that shouldn’t be held against him; he’s adding his own flavor to what’s been made before.
Sugg Savage, “Let’z”
P.G. Country rapper Sugg Savage is a star. An adorable badass who can actually rap is refreshing in a male-dominated scene comprised of too many wanksters, and she nails her flow on HYMN’s spectacular beat. Watch out for this woman.
Saba Abraha, “East Side Story”
Saba is a relatively new talent who is bound to make waves both in DC and beyond. Her debut EP is silky smooth and filled with beats you want to play really loudly in your car. The perfect definition of contemporary DC music, it’s equal parts indie and hip-hop, only with a voice that is so wonderfully unique I wouldn’t be surprised to hear her on some really big song(s) in the future.
Che Brown (ACME)
My Personal Thoughts on 2016…
Let me begin by saying the DC/Maryland/ and Virginia area has always produced quality music talent. Two words “Pharrell Williams,” I could end this rant right here. That being said, I think the issue a lot of my comrades in the local music scene have is that there is no “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” mentality like that in New York, L.A., or the bigger markets elsewhere. There is no Gucci Mane that uses his big platform to give the spotlight to talented up and coming artists; there is a disconnect between the Wale’s and the “Lil ‘ Soundcloud” who makes mixtapes in his mother’s basement.
Of course, it’s fair to say not every kid with the cracked version of Ableton Live is the next Carnage. However, there is a lot of talent in the area who simply lack opportunity and knowledge of “the game” (the music/marketing business and its intricacies). So, I call on Modi/Trillectro, Peter Rosenberg, Wale, Big G, London Zhiloh, Ian Mackaye, Dave Grohl, Taraji P. Henson: please share the keys! There are so many creative people living in this city that could greatly benefit from a shout-out, masterclass workshop, a retweet even. The gifted artists who have yet to catch a break need help from the established artists and influencers from the area.
Until that push comes, though, I do believe there can be a self-sustaining music scene right here at home that thrives off of the internet. With the proper use of social media marketing and viral videos, the DMV could do to the music world what the Golden State Warriors did to the NBA.
Time will tell.
Thraxxx Gang, “Iggady”
This song is super lit. Or as the P.G. County/ DC locals would say “this joint jih crank moe” (translation: this song is very good).
On the subject of DMV slang, the term “Iggady” has no real definition. Just think of it as the DMV version of “Izzle” (as in Snoop’s “Fa Shizzle ma Nizzle”); it’s a suffix, so to speak. Mix a menacing trap beat and about a million words that rhyme with “Iggady,” and you have an ear-worm that holds a candle to the best of 21 Savage, Desiigner, and Rae Sremmurd.
Masego, (Norfolk, VA) “Send Yo’ Rita!”
First off, I love this cat; he reminds me of Rapheal Saadiq. Think Rapheal Saadiq vocals, Soulection beats, and maybe Kenny G on sax (sorry Masego, couldn’t think of a sax player lol).
“Send Yo’ Rita!” — track 4 off of the Pink Polo EP follow-up entitled Loose Thoughts — is super catchy and dancey, though it may have an unfair advantage given the fact the beat features a sample/interpolation of Justin Timberlake’s 2002 hit “Señorita”#. Regardless, this one is a solid dance floor chune. I imagine the high school awkward kid stealing a dance with his cheerleader crush.
Brent Faiyaz, (DMV now L.A.) “Lovely”
I love those enigmatic “out of nowhere” artists, the kind that make you ask a million questions. Little is known about Brent Faiyaz, one-third of “Sonder” (a producer collective affiliated with Soulection), but what I’ve gathered is that he’s from the DMV, he’s 21, and he. is. exceptional!
The opening track to A.M. Paradox EP, entitled “Lovely,” seems to be an ode to a stripper — “see you move on that pole baby look at you go” — but both the accompaniment and vocal performance are equally beguiling, reminiscent of early The Weeknd and DVSN.
Bryce Rudow (Editor-in-Chief, Random Nerds)
Fellow Creatures – “Seance (Shuka)”
I’ve been in love with this song since I first heard the demo for it on Fellow Creatures’ Bandcamp page, and getting to see them perform it live at a house show in Mt. Pleasant (with the kind of wraparound porch and spacious floor plan one can only find over there) was a true highlight to my summer.
To restate less eloquently what Lindsay wrote above, this band is just one of those ever-more-rare kind that are worth really digging into with multiple relistens and revisits.
K.A.A.N. – “Music”
One day the world will wake up and realize one of the best rappers alive is hanging out in Columbia, MD. Personally I’m almost offended no one has gobbled K.A.A.N. up with a deal of some kind, though at least Brandon seems to be handling it well.
“Music” is the first track off his 2016 album Uncommon Knowledge, and it’s a perfect example of the needle-nosed casualty with which this young man is able to glide over his beats. I’m doubling down any and all bets on K.A.A.N. for 2017, but in the meantime I’m content to hear (/catch): “I’m feeling great/I’m in a good space.”
A Look at DC’s Music Scene in 2017, from Lindsay
Music in DC is Sisyphean. Our artists are always rolling boulders up hills made of exorbitant living costs and insufficient creative infrastructure; our musicians suffer from a lack of institutions, venues, and opportunities to pull them from obscurity. From a business standpoint, any promising DC artist looking to sign to a major label and make a profit should just pack up now for LA or NY because, logistically speaking, this city has reemphasized time and time again it is not the place for them.
Yet there are still those who stay, those who have been here forever, who continue to create music just beyond the gaze of media machines and who help lay the foundations of a lasting community. They work hard with less, and most importantly, do so under a fierce attitude of inclusion. In DC, punk is an addendum, a suffix that doesn’t necessarily apply to a genre of music. It’s a doctrine that looms over experimental jazz groups, beat makers, lo-fi rockers and electronic artists alike.
Unfortunately, it’s that same stubborn denial of commodification, abusive capitalism, and industry racketeering that keeps many of these artists at arm’s length from any national recognition. But if DC bands don’t show up on Pitchfork’s ‘Best Of’ in the next four years, it’s because we’re too busy putting our music to good use on the front lines of a Trump Presidency.
Long live the swamp!
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